‘Caine Mutiny,’ ‘Winds of War’ author Herman Wouk has died
NEW YORK — Herman Wouk, the versatile, Pulitzer Prize winning author of such million-selling novels as “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Winds of War” whose steady Jewish faith inspired his stories of religious values and secular success, died on Friday at 103.
Wouk was just 10 days shy of his 104th birthday and was working on a book until the end, said his literary agent Amy Rennert.
Rennert said Wouk died in his sleep at his home in Palm Springs, California, where he settled after spending many years in Washington, D.C.
Among the last of the major writers to emerge after World War II and first to bring Jewish stories to a general audience, he had a long, unpredictable career that included gag writing for radio star Fred Allen, historical fiction and a musical co-written with Jimmy Buffett. He won the Pulitzer in 1952 for “The Caine Mutiny,” the classic Navy drama that made the unstable Captain Queeg, with the metal balls he rolls in his hand and his talk of stolen strawberries, a symbol of authority gone mad. A film adaptation, starring Humphrey Bogart, came out in 1954 and Wouk turned the courtroom scene into the play “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.”
Other highlights included “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” which Wouk and Buffett adapted into a musical, and his two-part World War II epic, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” both of which Wouk himself adapted for a 1983, Emmy Award-winning TV miniseries starring Robert Mitchum. “The Winds of War” received some of the highest ratings in TV history and Wouk’s involvement covered everything from the script to commercial sponsors.
Wouk (pronounced WOKE) was an outsider in the literary world. From Ernest Hemingway to James Joyce, major authors of the 20th century were assumed either anti-religious or at least highly skeptical. But Wouk was part of a smaller group that included C.S. Lewis, Chaim Potok and Flannery O’Connor who openly maintained traditional beliefs. One of his most influential books was “This Is My God,” published in 1959 and an even-handed but firm defense of Judaism. For much of his life, he studied the Talmud daily and led a weekly Talmud class. He gave speeches and sermons around the country and received several prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the Jewish Book Council. During his years in Washington, the Georgetown synagogue he attended was known unofficially as “Herman Wouk’s synagogue.”
Jews were present in most of Wouk’s books. “Marjorie Morningstar,” published in 1955, was one of the first million-selling novels about Jewish life, and two novels, “The Hope” and “The Glory,” were set in Israel.
Wouk had a mixed reputation among critics. He was not a poet or social rebel, and shared none of the demons that inspired the mad comedy of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
Even anthologies of Jewish literature tended to exclude him. Gore Vidal praised him, faintly, by observing that Wouk’s “competence is most impressive and his professionalism awe-inspiring in a world of lazy writers and TV-stunned readers.”
But Wouk was widely appreciated for the uncanniness of his historical detail, and he had an enviably large readership that stayed with him through several long novels. His friends and admirers ranged from Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin to Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel. President Ronald Reagan, in a 1987 speech honoring 37 sailors killed on the USS Stark, quoted Wouk: “Heroes are not supermen; they are good men who embody — by the cast of destiny — the virtue of their whole people in a great hour.”